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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: What if Jack Collins Ran for Governor?

By Kevin O'Toole, January 07 2020 12:00 am

It’s 2001 and What if Jack Collins Ran for Governor?

The year was 2000 and politics swirled around three seemingly intertwined races:

(1)        2000 race for US Senate;
(2)        2001 race for Governor ; and
(3)        2002 race for the other US Senate seat

We covered the 2000 senate race in my previous column, so let us jump to the race for Governor in 2001.

The race was slowly burning a fuse throughout the late 1990’s as to who would succeed Governor Whitman. The Governor broke her pact of office and left early to serve as the Secretary of The Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.

It was an honor that a New Jersey resident would be asked to serve in such an impressive and important national role, but this early departure exposed a gaping hole in our state Constitution. At that time, until we later changed the law and added the office of Lieutenant Governor, the Senate President would take over as Acting Governor while remaining as Senate President until the next election. That enormous power collage left one individual (State Senator Donald DiFrancesco) singularly in charge of nearly two of the three branches of government.

That is asking lot of a person and their top staff members.

By early 2001, I was in a somewhat precarious position. I had by this time served in the Assembly for 6 years and was poised to take a Senate seat in District 21.

For those who were around, it was not hard to figure out my dilemma. I was part of Speaker Jack Collins’ leadership, and was at the same time made aware my Senator, C Louis Bassano, was looking to finally land his long sought after (and deserved) pension improving position at the Sports Authority – this was before an Acting Governor who shall not be named stripped away all the power and prestige of this once powerful agency. Said Acting Governor gave away the store to the Giants and Jets owners (can you say PSLs that worth 25% of their value?) and with it the control of the events, revenue from events and parking all while gutting the Sports Authority.

I digress.

With Bassano vacating the senate seat, I plotted to be the unanimous nominee for his Union County based seat.

Back to my dilemma: Do I support the emerging candidacy of Collins for Governor or do I straddle and play ball with the Senate President and Acting Governor? For some reason, King Lear and the line about uneasy is the head that wears the crown entered my brain.

What was a County chair and an ambitious legislator to do?

Despite the earlier teaching in the North Ward about going with the POWER, I, as Chair of Essex GOP, opted to support my Speaker, Jack Collins.

For those who don’t know Jack, he was and remains one of the smartest and most decent politicians that I ever came across. As Speaker, he was charismatic, sincere, interesting, incredibly well versed on his feet and beloved by most.

I sat with Jack many times, as he courted me and the Essex line. I pledged to be in his kitchen cabinet and attended too many meetings in some far away land below 195.

I told Jack I would help line up North Jersey lines, but tell me you are in it for keeps. He assured me that he had the “fire in the belly.” By supporting this Southerner I would incur some wrath (that is putting it mildly) up North. I staged some meet and greets and low and behold Jack won a straw poll in Essex County – shocker.

Things were grooving until that fateful call to my home on that regrettable Wednesday night.

I recognized that voice immediately and I knew it wasn’t good news.

After some preliminary niceties, the Speaker lowered the boom – he was not running for Governor and thanked me for supporting him.

Gulp. He would not really go into detail, but he was down and sounded beaten up. I felt badly for Jack but I was annoyed and angry.

I bet the entire house on Jack and was soon having to explain to my committee, and to many elected officials, why I got it wrong. This was not pleasant and I did not quite understand why he got out.

I later surmised that political bosses tried to maximize their horse-trading and Jack was too decent and principled a person.

Enough said.

Random thought – Did Toms River really need that extra $500k for a ball field?

Jack would have been a groundbreaking Governor, he cared about people, and politics always came after people. He would have healed the South v North divide years ago and done great things in education and for the environment.

We can revisit the past and say “what if” but that won’t change anything and it certainly won’t change today’s nutty political environment. All I can say is that they don’t make em like Jack Collins anymore.

This column originally appeared on InsiderNJ.

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